When I first saw the paper below, which is still on the pages of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association—a journal I expected to be peer-reviewed journal and have a modicum of rigor even if it is about psychoanalysis—I thought it was a joke: a hoax “grievance” paper à la Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian. But I don’t think it is. Instead, it’s a horrid, racist gemisch of obscurantist chest-beating in the guise of antiracism. Click on the screenshot to read it, or download the pdf here. (The full reference is at the bottom of the page.)
Just three quotes, besides the abstract above, give the tenor of the paper:
Parasitic Whiteness infiltrates our drives early on. The infiltrated drive binds id-ego-superego into a singular entity, empowered to dismiss and override all forms of resistance. The drive apparatus of Whiteness divides the object world into two distinct zones. In one, the Whiteness-infiltrated drive works in familiar ways—inhibited, checked, distorted, transformed—susceptible, that is, to standard neurotic deformations. In the other, however, none of this holds true. There the liberated drive goes rogue, unchecked and unlimited, inhibited by neither the protests of its objects nor the counterforces of its internal structures.
. . .Parasitic Whiteness generates a state of constantly erotized excitement, a drift toward frenzy.1 Fix, control, and arouse; want, hate, and terrorize. Whiteness resides at this always volatile edge, in a state of permanent skirmish, always taking on the never obliterated resistances of its nonwhite objects. Opaque to itself and hyperconscious of those objects, Whiteness pursues the impossible, a stable synthesis, an end point. It can therefore never rest. Blindly, then, it continues forward, unendingly bent on conquering. There seems no backward path, no mode of retreat. It faces an interminable forward march. If only it could totally and permanently transform these objects, turn the once feared and unknown into the now reduced and measured; turn the once unique and overwhelming into the now fungible and owned.
Whiteness originates not in innocence but in entitlement.
. . . Psychoanalytic work, then, need not properly target Whiteness itself here. Instead, it can effectively target the psychic receptor sites that provide Whiteness the interior vertical mapping on which it depends. The vertical map disrupts the identificatory bond that might once have bound subject to object. The bond persists, though, reshaped and hardened now into a vertical format. Identification morphs into disidentification, similarity into difference, affectionate care into sadistic cruelty. Diminish the spread and influence of these interior vertical receptor sites and, indirectly, the parasite of Whiteness is dislodged, loosed, itself becoming susceptible to exposure, as a differentiated and alien presence. Psychoanalytic work, in its most radical, fundamental, and, finally neutral forms, targets any and all of the effects of vertical mapping. Where verticality was, there horizontality will be.
Ah, the termites are dining well! Imagine if this paper used any ethnicity other than “whiteness”. It would not have been publishable, and the author would have been damned and demonized forever for racism. Indeed, I’m baffled why the editor of this journal even published the screed. It appears to say nothing beyond whiteness being a parasitic infection of the mind that needs to be cured by psychoanalysis (of course).
Faculty, New York Psychoanalytic Institute [NYPI]; co-founder of the Green Gang, a four-person collective working with climate change denial and the relation between the human and the natural worlds; Chair, Program Committee, American Psychoanalytic Association.
Now there’s a different Donald Moss, another physician, who hastened to tweet that he wasn’t the guy who wrote this execrable paper. I don’t see the “correction and apology” on the website, though.
My name was misidentified as author of an article in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association about the “malignant, parasitic-like” condition of “Whiteness.” I did not author this article and am pleased to see that the publication has issued a correction and an apology.
I don’t want to delve further into this steaming pile of psychoanalytic scat, as you can read the paper for yourself, and perhaps delve further into the writings of Dr. Moss. But you can conclude two things. First, this Donald Moss is off the rails, perhaps in need of treatment himself (but not psychoanalysis!). Second, the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association has no credibility and, apparently, no standards.
I wonder what his colleagues at the NYPI are thinking. . .
Moss, D. 2021. On Having Whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 69:355-371.
Well, the latest scientific journal or magazine to go to hell in a handbasket is Scientific American, which under the editorial guidance of Laura Helmuth has published a putrid piece of pure pro-Palestinian propaganda. It’s an op-ed piece apparently written by a group of Palestinian BDS activists (one author wishes to be anonymous). purveying the usual distortions, omissions, and outright lies. If there were a counter piece refuting those lies (there is below, but not at Sci Am), it would be somewhat better, but not much. Instead, the op-ed is linked to a Google Document petition (surely not posted by Sci Am) that you can sign in solidarity with Palestine.
First of all, a science magazine has no business taking an ideological stand like this, particularly one replete with lies and distortions. What was Scientific American thinking? Do they fancy themselves to be Mother Jones? Read for yourself.
Here’s the petition (click on screenshot)
The article has the usual palaver, but its biggest distortion is accusing Israel of war crimes and targeting civilians, when the truth is precisely the opposite: during the recent skirmish, the Palestinians fired 4,360 rockets deliberately targeting civilians, while Israel avoided civilian killing to the best of its ability while trying to disable Hamas. Israel issues warnings before attacking; does Palestine do that? No, because their aim is to kill civilians without warning. How come nobody, least of all these authors, mention that?
The article decries the “disproportionality” of deaths, when many Palestinian dead (perhaps more than half) were Hamas fighters, and the op-ed seems almost regretful that more Israelis did not die (the “disproportionality” argument makes little sense when one side has an Iron Dome and the other side fires rockets and has no defense). There is no mention of Palestinian war crimes, which include not just the targeting of civilians but the use of human shields that guarantee civilian deaths.
The article blames Israel for not supplying healthcare, including COVID vaccines, to the Palestinians. But in fact the Oslo Agreement specifies that responsibility for healthcare in the Palestinian Territories resides solely with the Palestinian Authority, and that specifically includes vaccinations. (It also doesn’t mention that Israel did supply a lot of COVID vaccine to Palestine, even to its leaders.) The article supports the BDS movement, a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate the state of Israel. The article indicts Israel for being an apartheid state, when in fact the Palestinian Territories are FAR more of an “apartheid state” than is Israel, for Palestine oppresses gays, atheists, apostates, and women, and forbids Jews to live in the Territories or buy property there (the latter is a capital crime). Plenty of Arabs, of course, live in Israel.
The article doesn’t mention the infamous Palestinian “pay for slay” program, in which the families of terrorists who kill Israeli Jews, civilians or soldiers, get ample financial rewards while in prison, and get jobs when they get out. (Here’s a recent example.) How godawful is that? Well, we don’t bring up things like that when we’re defending Palestine.
The Scientific American op-ed is so outstandingly stupid that one can only wonder what the editors of the magazine were thinking when they published it. Did they not do any fact-checking? Or are they abysmally ignorant of what has and is happening in the Israel/Palestine conflict? Why did they “take sides” by publishing the first political op-ed I’ve seen in the magazine (granted, I may have missed some). This angers me because the lies are as invidious as Trump’s claims that the election was “stolen.”
Well, I won’t go on, for the Scientific American screed is fully taken apart by the article below from CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis). And yes, by indicting Israel for “war crimes” while completely ignoring the crimes of Hamas and lying to or misleading readers, the op-ed becomes a totally one-sided propaganda piece. Read it for yourself, and then read the article below. It’s a good thing I don’t read Sci. Am.; dreck like this gets called to my attention by readers. I don’t think calling the Sci Am op-ed “shilling for terrorists” to be too far off the mark.
The article also refutes the op-ed’s claim that Israel has “decimated” the Palestinian healthcare system, which in fact is better than ever. (And it would be a very good system if Palestine would start spending money on healthcare instead of offensive rockets, and had it accepted one of Israel’s many offers for a two-state solution.) Do the authors mention that every year thousands of Palestinians, including Hamas leaders and their relatives, are treated in Israeli hospitals as a gesture of good will? No, of course not.
An op-ed so woefully ignorant or biased doesn’t belong in any respectable venue, much less in Scientific American. But I guess we can expect more to come. If you have any respect for the truth, you might ponder if you want to continue subscribing.
Genetic drift is the random change in frequencies of alleles (forms of a gene, like the A, B, and O alleles of the Landsteiner blood-group gene) due to random assortment of genes during meiosis and the fact that populations are limited in size. It is one of only a handful of evolutionary “forces” that can cause evolution—if you conceive of “evolution,” as many of us do, as “changes in allele frequencies over time” (“allele frequencies” are sometimes called “gene frequencies”). Other forces that can cause evolutionary change are natural selection and meiotic drive.
Genetic drift certainly operates in populations, for it must given that populations are finite and alleles assort randomly when sperm (or pollen) and eggs are formed. The question that evolutionists have been most concerned with is this: “How important is genetic drift in evolution?” We know that, if populations are sufficiently small, for instance, drift can actually counteract natural selection, leading to high frequencies of maladaptive genes. This is what has happened in small human isolates, such as religious communities like the Amish and Dunkers. It’s not clear, though, that this has happened with any appreciable frequency in other species.
Drift was once implicated by Sewall Wright, a famous evolutionist, in his well-known “shifting balance theory of evolution“, which maintained that drift was essential in producing many adaptations in nature. That theory was once influential, but has now fallen out of favor, and I take credit for some of that (see my collaborative critiques here and here).
Related to this are various theories that see genetic drift and its maladaptive effects as crucial in forming new species (e.g., the “founder-flush” theory of speciation). In my book with Allen Orr, Speciation, we analyze these ideas in chapter 11 and conclude that drift has been of minimal importance in speciation compared to natural selection.
Finally, genetic drift was an important part of Steve Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, for it was the force that allowed isolated populations to undergo random phenotypic change, tumbling them from one face of “Galton’s polyhedron” to another. This was one of the explanations for why change in the fossil record was jerky. Well, the fossil record may well be punctuated, but Gould’s theoretical explanation was pretty soundly dismantled by population geneticists, including several of my Chicago colleagues (see this important critique).
While one can cite examples of genetic drift operating in nature, like the expected loss of genetic variation in very small populations, in my view it hasn’t been of much importance in speciation, morphological and physiological evolution, or in facilitating adaptive evolution by pushing populations through “adaptive valleys.” Even the view that it has made species vulnerable to extinction by reducing the pool of genetic variation needed to adapt to environmental change has been exaggerated. I know of no extinctions caused by genetic drift, though I haven’t checked on the cheetah example lately (they were said to be highly inbred because of small populations, but I’m not sure that this is what makes them vulnerable to extinction). In fact, for conservation purposes, I believe the importance of loss of genetic variation through drift has been much less than the importance of reduced population size itself that makes populations vulnerable to extinction because individuals can’t find mates or overgraze their environment, or simply because if you’re a small population, random fluctuations in numbers are more likely to make you go extinct. This is demographic rather than genetically based extinction.
But drift has been important in molecular evolution, causing a turnover of gene variants over long periods of time. If those variants are “neutral”—that is, they are equivalent in their response to natural selection—then they will turn over at a roughly linear rate with time, and the changes can be used as a sort of “molecular clock” to estimate divergence times between species. This kind of molecular divergence has been used to construct family trees of species as well as to estimate the times when species diverged. This is a fairly new usage, for such molecular tools and estimates have been available only since the 1960s.
On to the New Scientist bit about drift in its latest issue, a special on evolution.
The 13-point section about how new findings will expand our understanding of evolution includes section 9 about drift, called “Survival of the luckiest.” It first recounts, accurately, how drift operates, but then exaggerates its importance by mentioning two studies of urban populations of animals, populations that in principle should show more drift than wild populations because populations living in cities are small and fragmented. The section says nothing about any of the things I just told you, which is what evolutionists have really been concerned about with respect to genetic drift.
Here’s the entirety of how New Scientist says drift is revising our view of evolution (the author of this section is Colin Barass):
Biologists have known about genetic drift for a century, but in recent years they realised that it could be especially common in urban settings where roads and buildings tend to isolate organisms into small populations. A 2016 study of the white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus, in New York supported the idea. Jason Munshi-South at Fordham University, New York, and his colleagues discovered that urban populations have lost as much as half of their genetic diversity compared with rural populations.
Last year, Lindsay Miles at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada, and her colleagues published a review of evidence from about 160 studies of evolution in urban environments, in organisms ranging from mammals and birds to insects and plants. Almost two-thirds of the studies reported reduced genetic diversity compared with rural counterparts, leading the researchers to conclude that genetic drift must have played a role. “Genetic drift can definitely be a significant driver of evolution,” says Miles.
These findings have big implications, because populations lose their ability to adapt and thrive if they lack genetic diversity for natural selection to work on. Of course, genetic drift isn’t confined to urban settings, but given how much urbanisation is expected to grow, the extra threat it poses to wildlife is concerning. It highlights the need to create green corridors so that animals and plants don’t become isolated into ever-smaller populations.
I don’t think those findings do have “big implications”, because the important of reduced genetic variation in urban environments is unclear, particularly when the genes assayed have no clear connection with natural selection. And the import of losing half of your genetic diversity is also questionable: after all, a single fertilize female contains half of the “heritability” of an entire population. Everything rests on whether evolution by natural selection depends on very low-frequency genetic variants, present only in big populations, and we don’t really know if this is the case. And the above study is in white-footed mice, only one species among millions, and only for populations in urban environments. That’s not to denigrate it, just to point out that its relevance to nonurban nature is unclear and its relevance to evolution is equally unclear.
You can read the Miles et al. study at the link (here), and having read it, I wasn’t impressed, since the authors themselves don’t come to nearly as strong a conclusion as does New Scientist. Here’s from the paper’s conclusions:
Although our review of the literature with quantitative analyses of published urban population genetic data sets demonstrates trends towards increased genetic drift and reduced gene flow, these patterns were not significant and were not universally seen across taxa. In fact, over a third of published studies show no negative effects of urbanization on genetic diversity and differentiation, including studies supporting urban facilitation models at a much higher proportion than previously realized. How populations and species respond to urbanization clearly depends on the natural history of the taxa investigated, the number and location of cities being sampled, and the molecular techniques used to characterize population genetic structure.
In other words, although two-thirds of the studies showed reduced variation or increased inter-population differentiation, these patterns were not significantly different from non-urban populations. And if those differences were not significant, you needn’t start speculating about genetic drift. The authors conclude simply that different species show different genetic patterns when living in urban environments.
Miles’s statement that “genetic drift can definitely be a significant driver of evolution” is ambiguous, because she doesn’t say what she means by “significant” or by “evolution” (is she talking just about patterns of molecular evolution, like genetic diversity, or other types of evolution?)
New Scientist, in other words, fails to make the case that genetic drift has changed our view of how evolution operates, much less that it’s modified the modern synthetic theory of evolution. We already knew that small populations lose genetic variation because of genetic drift, and that’s been standard lore for decades. The real novel claims about drift—that it facilitates adaptive evolution, that it’s an important driver of speciation, and that it explains punctuated patterns in the fossil record—have disappeared because of the absence of both data and theory supporting those claims.
I am weary of going after New Scientist, and this may be my last critique of that issue. But be aware that virtually every one of the other nine points is exaggerated as well. Move along folks—nothing to see here.
I’ll continue on with New Scientist‘s 13-section claim that the modern theory of evolution needs a reboot (see previous posts here and here), though I don’t know how much longer I can stand their uninformed palaver written by incurious journalists. Today we’l take up section 4: “There is more to inheritance than just genes”, which emphasizes the importance of epigenetic changes in evolution. The article appeared in this special issue of the rag magazine:
As I’ve written many times before, epigenetic changes are not good candidates for an inherited basis for evolutionary change, mainly because the vast majority of epigenetic modifications of DNA—usually via methylating DNA bases—disappear within one generation, as the DNA effaces the epigenetic markers during sexual reproduction. A few epigenetically produced traits can persist for a few generations, but that’s not a good basis for permanent evolutionary change, and certainly not a general explanation of adaptation. In fact, we know the genetic basis of adaptation in many cases, and it’s nearly 100% due to changes in the DNA sequence, not to epigenetic modification of the DNA sequence. (Lactose tolerance in pastoral human populations is one example.)
To support the claim that epigenetics is important in evolution, author Carrie Arnold mentions the shopworn example of pregnant Dutch women, deprived of food by the Nazis, giving birth to children who became unhealthy adults, with high levels of obesity, diabetes, and so on. Besides this not being an example of adaptive evolutionary change, it’s still not certain that the changes in the kids were produced by epigenetic modification of the DNA. The pregnant mothers were the ones who passed on the traits, and the fetuses could have been affected by the mother’s physiology, not by changes in her DNA. (It’s telling that the children of undernourished fathers alone didn’t show the changes.) There may have been some epigenetic changes, or maternal effects, in that the grandchildren seem to be affected too, but that’s where the train of changes comes to a stop.
Then Arnold mentions an experiment with which I wasn’t familiar, but supposedly demonstrated epigenetic changes that persisted for many generation—25, to be precise:
Subsequent studies in plants and animals suggest that epigenetic inheritance is more common than anyone had expected. What’s more, compared with genetic inheritance, it has some big advantages. Environments can change rapidly and dramatically, but genetic mutations are random, so often require generations to take hold. Epigenetic marks, by contrast, are created in minutes or hours. And because they result from environmental change, they are often adaptive, boosting the survival of subsequent generations.
Take the pea aphid. It is capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, and comes in two varieties: winged and wingless. When scientists exposed a group of genetically identical pea aphids to ladybirds, the proportion of winged aphids increased from a quarter to a half. This adaptation, which helped them escape the predatory ladybirds, persisted for 25 generations. The aphid DNA didn’t mutate, the only change was epigenetic.
So I “took” the pea aphid, reading the paper that supposedly showed persistent epigenetic variation over 25 generations. Click on the screenshot below to get the paper (from the journal Heredity):
It’s a long and somewhat tedious read, but there are two points to make.
1.) The plastic response to the predator—growing wings (an adaptation that’s genetically encoded)—did not persist for 25 generations on its own. In fact, if you remove the predator, the stimulus for growing wings, the population becomes wingless again within a single generation. So we do not have a case of epigenetic markers persisting on their own for many generations, much less two generations.
2.) There is no evidence that the production of winged forms is caused by epigenetic modification of the DNA, and the authors admit this.
In other words, everything that Arnold says or implies about this experiment is misguided.
The experiment was started with a single clonal population of aphids, that is, parthenogenetically produced individuals from a single female. The population thus lacked genetic variation except for new mutations that could have occurred after the experiment started. One part of the population was the experimental section, exposed to predatory ladybirds. That one produced winged individuals immediately at a proportion of about 50% of the population. This proportion remained stable for 27 generations. Producing wings in the presence of predators is adaptive, of course, as you can flee them, and not producing wings when the predator is absent is also presumably adaptive, as there’s a metabolic and reproductive cost of producing wings you don’t use. Thus the switching between wings and winglessness is an adaptive plasticity, and is presumably coded (not epigenetically!) in the aphids’ DNA.
The control line, lacking ladybirds, stayed at about 25% winged individuals for 25 generations.
At three intervals, the authors took aphids from the experimental line and put them in an environment without predators. If the epigenetic markers persisted in the absence of the predator, and through meiosis, you’d expect these “reversion” lines to still show a higher frequency of winged individuals. They didn’t. They basically reverted to the control level of winglessness within a single generation, presumably because the switch for growing wings (ladybirds) wasn’t there.
So what we see is that to get the adaptive trait, wings, to persist, you need the stimulus to be there constantly. The presence of the predator somehow induces the aphids to grow wings, just as the presence of fish in a pond causes some rotifers to grow fish-repelling spines. And when you take the predator away, the aphids switch back to the wingless form. Here’s a plot showing the frequency of wings in the experimental population (red line), in the control predator-less population, (black line) and the reverted population in which predators were removed (blue line):
Unlike the Dutch situation, or others that report persistence of environmentally induced changes for a few generations, in this case the induced change, the presence of wings, reverts to control levels within a generation. We do not see the kind of trait persistence here that epigenetics advocates tout as important in making the phenomenon important in evolution.
And indeed, we don’t even know if the switch from winglessness to wings is an epigenetic change, as opposed to some chemical change that occurs in the aphids when they sense the presence of predators that turns on “wing-making genes”. (That’s how it works in rotifers: when a fish eats a rotifer, it releases chemicals into the water that induce the other rotifers to produce spines. That’s not an epigenetic modification of the DNA.) If you think that any environmental change is “epigenetic”, then yes, this one could be, but that’s not the way the cool kids construe “epigenetic” these days. It’s taken to mean “alterations of the DNA structure”, which is what journalist Arnold means by mentioning “epigenetic marks [that] are created in minutes or hours.”
There’s one twist in the experiment as well: in the lines subject to predators, the plasticity of individuals became reduced; that is, they were less likely to respond to changes in predators with changes in wings. The paper’s authors impute this to epigenetics, but it could well be due to selection occurring on mutations that arose in the predator lines. That is, since predation was omnipresent, there was less selection pressure to maintain a “switching system,” and your plasticity could erode. To maintain a switch between wings and winglessness, the lineage has to experience periodic bouts of predation alternated with bouts of no predation. So the loss of plasticity itself also says nothing about whether epigenetic markers were accumulating in the DNA.
And, at the end, the paper’s authors admit that we don’t know whether this switch is due to epigenetic modification of the DNA, as the New Scientists reporter claims. From the Heredity paper:
We can thus tentatively attribute the decline in plasticity observed in lines that were exposed to predators for many generations to the action of some non-genetically transmitted information (i.e. information not encoded in the DNA sequence). The hypothesis that observed phenotypic changes were caused by reversible epigenetic changes is thereby more likely but in order to be confirmed, this hypothesis would require to be backed up by molecular analyses.
I can find nothing in this paper that even suggests that epigenetic changes were happening to the aphids’ DNA, much less any kind of inherited changes that persist for more than one generation. This paper is certainly not an example of what New Scientist says it is.
This is the third buzzwordy phenomenon tendered by New Scientist as an exciting new finding that can modify the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. And it’s the third one that is wrong. I am growing weary, and will see if I need to persist in debunking further claims in the article. Rest assured, though, that most of them are even weaker than the three I’ve discussed. But what does New Scientist care? They want clicks, not accuracy, and I fear that I’m wasting my time. I’d rather write about the new paper on consciousness in crows.
At least the New Scientist article admits that epigenetics is controversial:
The extent of epigenetic inheritance is contested. Some sceptics point out that, during mammalian reproduction, the creation of sperm and egg cells involves erasing epigenetic markers. Others argue that epigenetic transmission across generations is extremely widespread and useful. In plants, for example, it can account for differences in fruit size, flowering time and many other survival-boosting traits.
Yes, but it’s because the transmission across generations lasts about two or three generations at most that is why epigenetic modification by itself is not a good candidate for the “replicator” that produces adaptive evolution.
As I reported the other day, New Scientist has a special issue on evolution (photo below), which apparently consists of their admission that Darwin was right after all, along with a “feature special” described as follows:
Our modern conception of evolution started with Charles Darwin and his idea of natural selection – “survival of the fittest” – to explain why certain individuals thrive while others fail to leave a legacy. Then came genetics to explain the underlying mechanism: changes in organisms caused by random mutations of genes. Now this powerful picture is changing once more, as discoveries in genetics, epigenetics, developmental biology and other fields lend a new complexity and richness to our greatest theory of nature. Find out more in this 12-page feature special.
The article, which you can’t access online—though judicious inquiry will yield you a copy—consists of 13 numbered scientific areas that are supposedly prompting a reboot of modern evolutionary theory. I’m not going to reprise all of them, as I’ve done so already about many of the “buzzwordy” areas, including epigenetics and niche construction, but I will single out, over the next week, several of the areas that are, to my mind, exaggerated or grossly misrepresented. For readers who’ve said that New Scientist isn’t so bad, my response is, “Well, its coverage of evolution, at least, is dreadful if you know things about modern evolutionary biology.”
True, in some of these areas the article pays lip service to the fact that they’re “controversial”, but the impression one gets is that evolutionary biology is teeming not just with new ideas, but with new ideas that are non-Darwinian and promise a dramatic revision of the theory. The problem is that most of these new areas are either mistakenly conceived or don’t constitute much of a change in evolutionary theory. In fact, none of them do more than put a new duckling under the wing of Darwinism, and none of them replace the mother duck.
Today’s target is GENETIC PLASTICITY, the first of the supposedly “new” areas of evolutionary biology. It’s described under the clickbait-y title “Genes Aren’t Destiny.”
My immediate response is that we’ve known about genetic plasticity for over a century. But let’s back up: what is genetic plasticity?
It’s simple: it’s the observation that for many genes, their expression depends on the environments in which the organism that carries them (and hence the genes themselves) develops or experiences. There are a gazillion examples. For some genes, you get a permanent effect depending on the environment obtaining during the organism’s growth. One example, which I and two colleagues used in an experiment on the temperature flies encounter in the wild, is the mutant allele white-blood, which affects eye color. The expression of the mutation is sensitive to temperature during just a narrow window of time when eye color forms in the pupal stage. If the temperature is high, the eye can turn out very light yellow or even white, but if the temperature is lower, the eye is darker, down to dark purple. After this sensitive period, the eye color stays the same for the fly’s life. The color is said to be “plastic with respect to temperature.”
Likewise, if you don’t get enough food as a kid, you’ll be permanently small after puberty. That’s because the genes involved in creating “height” are sensitive to the amount of nutrition the organism gets, making “human height” a plastic trait. There are a gazillion genes that are plastic in related ways; in fact, I know of very few genes whose expression isn’t affected by the environment (perhaps genes for polydactyly in humans and cats are examples of the latter).
Some genes can vary their expression over an organism’s lifetime. Cats get thicker coats in winter and revert to shorter coats in summer: the genes producing hair are reversibly plastic to temperature. Snowshoe hare become white in winter and brown in summer, a reversible case of pigment genes sensitive to temperature.
The fact is that since the advent of Mendlian genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, geneticists have recognized the plasticity of genes and the traits to which they contribute. The terms back then were that genes had “variable expressivity” or “variable penetrance” depending on the environment. (White-blood was described in 1945.) The idea of plasticity is not at all new, and was featured in the founding works of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s. It was an integral part of our modern view of development, which has long recognized that almost no traits are produced as invariant by genes acting independently of the environment, while the expression of most genes and traits involve an interaction between genes and environment.
I give you this primer because New Scientist, in #1 of its litany, pretends this idea and its instantiation in organisms is something new and exciting. In fact, they say, citing the Human Genome Project, that we now realize that this kind of interaction refutes genetic determinism:
The more we learn about genetics, the clearer it becomes that “genetic determinism” – the idea that genes and genes alone fix our destiny – is a myth. A given set of genes has the potential to produce a variety of observable characteristics, known as phenotypes, depending on the environment. An Arctic fox changes its coat colour with the seasons. The presence of predators causes water flea Daphnia longicephala to grow a protective helmet and spines.
The power of flexibility
Even a change in social environment can prompt a shift. In the European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), for example, when the queen dies, the oldest worker transforms herself into a new queen. But she isn’t the only one to respond. Seirian Sumner at University College London and her colleagues found that the death of a colony’s queen results in temporary changes in the expression of genes in all workers, as though they are jostling genetically for succession. This flexibility is key to the survival of the colony and the species, says Sumner.
The power of genetic plasticity can be seen in the humble house finch. In the past 50 years, it has colonised the eastern half of North America, moving into habitats ranging from pine forests near the Canadian border to swampland in the Gulf of Mexico. The finch’s underlying developmental plasticity provided the raw material from which novel features evolved, including a range of new colourings and other physical and behavioural traits, says David Pfennig at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Stop thinking about this as being like genes or environment, because it’s a combination of the two,” he says.
That’s all she wrote (the author of this section is Carrie Arnold).
Let us note that some plasticity, like hair growth in mammals during winter and coat color in snowshoe hares, has evolved: the changeability of the genes in new environments is an adaptive phenomenon (creating more warmth with longer hair and better camouflage in winter). Plasticity is not always a given and inherent characteristic of genes and traits, but in many cases has evolved as organisms have experienced different environments during their species’ evolutionary history, making lability an advantage over fixity.
Further, one can construe “genetic determinism” in two ways, which the article conflates. First, one can see it the proportion of variation in one trait in one population of organisms that’s caused by the variation among the genetic endowment of individuals. The proportion of variation among individuals in a population due to variation in their genes is called the heritability of that trait, and ranges from 0% to 100%. In humans, for example, the heritability of height in many populations is about 80%, meaning that about 80% of the variation in human tallness that we see in a given population is due to variation in genes. This does not mean that height itself cannot be affected by the environment, for it clearly can (I used the example of nutrition above). But under the existing conditions in a population, one can construe the heritability as an index of genetic determinism in a given population under existing environments.
The important thing, though, is what I said above: THIS IS NOT NEW AT ALL!. It is simply either ignorant or mendacious of New Scientist to pretend that genetic plasticity is both a recent discovery and one that has revised neo-Darwinism. Genetic plasticity was recognized well before neo-Darwinism was formulated in the 1930s as a fusion of genetics, natural history, and evolution, because genetic plasticity was known since the very early days of genetics—almost since Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900.
So, if you are masochistic enough to read the entire New Scientist article, you can just move along when you get to point 1; nothing to see here. It’s almost as if the authors touted the claim that the idea of natural selection (which really wasn’t widely accepted until the 1920s) is a new and exciting addition to Darwinism.
I doubt that there’s a scientist alive who doesn’t get one of these predatory journal pleas on a regular basis. They’re never in my field (this one is in agriculture and soil science!), and they are in deadly need of a 2-page opinion piece for the next issue of their sub-sub-substandard journal.
I’d be tempted to submit something humorous, but a. it’s work and b. it would debase the scientific enterprise. Instead, I’ll show you the email for your delectation.
If you look up the location of the journal’s “offices” in San Francisco, you’ll find they are virtual offices, providing only the appearance of an office with a mailing address and someone to answer the telephone.
In other words, although the journal is real, it’s a predatory journal that exploits scientists who need papers on their c.v.s, making money by charging exorbitant publication fees. I suspect the real offices are overseas given the fractured English in the email (“deadly need”, “please tack the below link”, probably meaning “tick”), which of course means the email is lying.
Perhaps an enterprising reader would want to call up “Emma Megan” at the number and see what transpires.
World Journal of Agriculture and Soil Science <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Wed 6/17/2020 5:38 AM
To: Jerry Coyne
Dear Dr. Jerry A Coyne,
Hope you are doing very well!
Well, we are in deadly need of only one article to release Volume 5 Issue 2 before End of this Month. Is it possible for you to support us with your 2-page Opinion or Mini Review for this issue?
Please acknowledge this email to submit your manuscript.
Emma Megan | Managing Editor
World Journal of Agriculture and Soil Science (WJASS) | [ISSN: 2641-6379]
Iris Publishers LLC,315 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA.
Web: irispublishers.com| Email Id: email@example.com |Tel no: +1-628-201-9788
Two days ago I analyzed an article about hybrid parrots that had just appeared in the Washington Post. It was grossly misleading in assuming that two parrots of different “species” (they weren’t—one was a hybrid) had mated and produced, lo, a parrot of another “new species” (also wrong). I tweeted my correction to the Washington Post, but, to be sure they saw it, I also contacted the author of the post and her editor through another editor, pointing them to my correction.
In the meantime, I made a bet with a reader (you know who you are!) that they would not correct the errors. The reader said that they would.
I figured I’d let two days go by before looking for a correction or update, and that is now. And there is no correction, as you can see by clicking on the screenshot below.
Now granted, the story was by a local-issues journalist with no apparent scientific training, but it still contains scientific claims—claims that are wrong. And their responsibility is to correct them. As it is now, many readers think that a hybrid is the same thing as a new species, even though a single individual cannot be a new species (later there were two, but of course both were hybrids in an aviary).
What’s heartening is that many of the article’s 265 comments so far point out to reporter Vargas that the parrot chicks are not a new species but simply hybrids, and that breeders regularly produce hybrid parrots that they call “hybrids” and not “new species.” But even all those comments on top of a post by a petulant biologist won’t force the Post to admit its errors. FAKE NEWS, FOLKS!
I was quite appalled to see this new op-ed in Scientific American in which former contributing editor Mark Alpert trots out all the Great Unknowns of Science to answer his title question with a big “NO!”. God is still viable!
Now the magazine does give a caveat at the end: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American”, but to me that doesn’t justify publication of what is essentially The Argument from Ignorance. A science magazine has no business engaging in theology—it might as well have titled the article “Can science rule out Wotan?” or “Can Science rule out Leprechauns?”. For the argument—that we don’t understand everything, ergo God remains a viable explanation—could hold not just for God, but for any postulate for which we don’t have evidence and, indeed, are unable to get decisive evidence. (Note at the end, though, that Alpert somehow thinks we can find evidence for god by using big telescopes. )
Increasingly, we see venues like Scientific American and National Geographic touting or coddling religion, and I’m not sure why. I don’t even have a theory that is mine.
Click on the screenshot to read (and weep).
First Alpert avers that he “has no religious agenda” and is neither a believer nor a “committed atheist”. But, as you’ll see, he has a definite weakness toward religion, especially since there is no empirical evidence (remember the magazine’s title) for a God, and yet his article tries to keep that idea viable. In trying to do that, he produces a dog’s breakfast of muddled arguments.
Here, for example, he mixes up a number of questions, some scientific and some religious or philosophical:
For 10 years, I was an editor at Scientific American. During that time, we were diligent about exposing the falsehoods of “intelligent design” proponents who claimed to see God’s hand in the fashioning of complex biological structures such as the human eye and the bacterial flagellum. But in 2008 I left journalism to write fiction. I wrote novels about Albert Einstein and quantum theory and the mysteries of the cosmos. And ideas about God keep popping up in my books.
Should scientists even try to answer questions about the purpose of the universe? Most researchers assume that science and religion are completely separate fields—or, in the phrase coined by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, “nonoverlapping magisteria.” But as physicists investigate the most fundamental characteristics of nature, they’re tackling issues that have long been the province of philosophers and theologians: Is the universe infinite and eternal? Why does it seem to follow mathematical laws, and are those laws inevitable? And, perhaps most important, why does the universe exist? Why is there something instead of nothing?
I don’t really know any scientists, save religious ones, who try to tell us about “the purpose of the universe.” It’s like asking, “what is the purpose of a star, or a glacier?” We all know that science doesn’t answer questions like that, except in a metaphorical way (i.e., “What is the purpose of the heart?”) And the questions Alpert broaches are a mixture of scientific ones (“Is the universe infinite and eternal?”) with theological ones (“Why does the universe exist?” could have both a theological and scientific answer), as well as ones that aren’t even scientifically sensible (“Why does [the universe] seem to follow mathematical laws?” is an observation that, if couched as a “why” question, begs for a theological answer).
Other questions, like “is the universe infinite?”, will and probably can answered, not by philosophers or theologians, but by scientists. The question, “are those laws inevitable?” at least has a possible scientific answer pending formulation of a new and comprehensive theory of physics.
Alpert then raises Aquinas’s “First Cause” (cosmological) argument, and doesn’t mention the many rebuttals, both scientific and philosophical, of that misguided argument for God. Later in the piece he does note Victor Stenger’s observation that why the universe could have been eternal, or have gone through endless cycles, but Alpert doesn’t mention these caveats when discussing the Cosmological Argument. In fact, it’s risible to discuss Aquinas’s refuted arguments in the pages of Scientific American as even remotely credible arguments for God.
Alpert then goes on to suggest that Einstein himself sort-of-believed in a God, using the same wink-wink-nod-nod claims we often hear: because Einstein used the word “god”, and Einstein was smart, that constitutes some evidence for divinity:
Both Leibniz and Newton considered themselves natural philosophers, and they freely jumped back and forth between science and theology.
By the 20th century, most scientists no longer devised proofs of God’s existence, but the connection between physics and faith hadn’t been entirely severed. Einstein, who frequently spoke about religion, didn’t believe in a personal God who influences history or human behavior, but he wasn’t an atheist either. He preferred to call himself agnostic, although he sometimes leaned toward the pantheism of Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who proclaimed, in the 17th century, that God is identical with nature.
Likewise, Einstein compared the human race to a small child in a library full of books written in unfamiliar languages: “The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly.”
Einstein often invoked God when he talked about physics. In 1919, after British scientists confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity by detecting the bending of starlight around the sun, he was asked how he would’ve reacted if the researchers hadn’t found the supporting evidence. “Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord,” Einstein said. “The theory is correct.” His attitude was a strange mix of humility and arrogance. He was clearly awed by the laws of physics and grateful that they were mathematically decipherable. (“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” he said. “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”)
This is nothing other than a weaselly way of conflating Einstein’s wonder at the regularities of the Universe with conventional religious belief. I’ve now read enough Einstein to realize, as do most of his biographers, that he didn’t really believe in any kind of anthropomorphic God, and wasn’t even a deist—except in the nonreligious sense that he felt awe at the regularities and comprehensibility of the Universe. His use of the words “Lord” and “God” was simply a gratuitous metaphor. But what other purpose does Alpert have here than to somehow make the idea of God more credible because Einstein, a smart guy, used the word.
Finally, Alpert plays his hole card, which is, of course, the oddity of quantum mechanics. It is, he says, almost. . . supernatural.
Although quantum theory is now the foundation of particle physics, many scientists still share Einstein’s discomfort with its implications. The theory has revealed aspects of nature that seem supernatural: the act of observing something can apparently alter its reality, and quantum entanglement can weave together distant pieces of spacetime. (Einstein derisively called it “spooky action at a distance.”) The laws of nature also put strict limits on what we can learn about the universe. We can’t peer inside black holes, for example, or view anything that lies beyond the distance that light has traveled since the start of the big bang.
And why, exactly, does this even seem supernatural. In his latest book, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, Carroll (who is an avowed atheist, though not a vociferous one), discusses how entanglement doesn’t really posit a supernatural-ish “observer effect”, for the observer is simply part of the physical wave function embracing an entire experiment.
Further, the fact that the laws of nature limit what we can know about the Universe (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” is a famous example), says nothing about the existence of a god.
Towards the end, I Alpert seems to realize that his argument for god is going nowhere, and so, in a move of desperation, he redefines “God” as “pure naturalism” or “the physical universe”. What is the sweating writer trying to say with this?:
Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume this hypothesis of Quantum Creation is correct. Suppose we do live in a universe that generated its own laws and called itself into being. Doesn’t that sound like Leibniz’s description of God(“a necessary being which has its reason for existence in itself”)? It’s also similar to Spinoza’s pantheism, his proposition that the universe as a whole is God. Instead of proving that God doesn’t exist, maybe science will broaden our definition of divinity.
But of course the universe could have existed, in one form or another, eternally, or there could be multiple universes that keep branching off, as Carroll suggests in his most recent book. But leaving that aside, Alpert knows perfectly well that a self-contained and purely naturalistic universe is not what most people think of as God. For if you define God as “all the laws of physics and their sequelae”, then anything, including a rock or a comet or a bird, could be taken as evidence for God.
There is in fact no point for “science to broaden our definition of divinity”—what he means is that science will replace our idea of divinity—unless Alpert somehow wants to fool believers into thinking that modern physics give us assurance that God existed. But redefining the idea of God in this way is a non-starter; as my dad used to say, “If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.” (Perhaps that’s not the wisest statement to mention these days, but it was from my dad, not me!) I see Alpert’s redefinition here, in view of what Americans really think about God, as mendacious, duplicitous, or even a way to convince himself that there might be a god.
At the very end, Alpert proposes that new scientific instruments will ultimately help us decide whether God exists, leading to “breakthroughs in theology”:
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To spur humanity’s search for meaning, we should prioritize the funding of advanced telescopes and other scientific instruments that can provide the needed data to researchers studying fundamental physics. And maybe this effort will lead to breakthroughs in theology as well. The pivotal role of observers in quantum theory is very curious. Is it possible that the human race has a cosmic purpose after all? Did the universe blossom into an untold number of realities, each containing billions of galaxies and vast oceans of emptiness between them, just to produce a few scattered communities of observers? Is the ultimate goal of the universe to observe its own splendor?
Perhaps. We’ll have to wait and see.
It would have helped here had Alpert told us what “breakthroughs in theology” are even potentially achievable by using new telescopes and instruments. Will we see the face of God with a sufficently power telescope? And what empirical findings would convince us that the universe has a cosmic purpose? Here Alpert is curiously silent, telling us nothing about how such observations could tell us what the “ultimate goal of the universe” is. That question doesn’t even have any meaning, any more than asking “what is the goal of a mountain?”
I can see his justification in an NSF Proposal for a new telescope: “In addition to the new empirical observations that could result from this funding, I should add that such a telescope could also enable humanity to find its meaning, perhaps leading to breakthroughs in theology.”
In this mushy article, former Scientific American editor Mark Alpert asks the question “Can science rule out God?” His answer—”Hell, no!”—is a foregone conclusion given that a.) science can’t rule out anything with absolute certainty, particularly those entities for which we have no empirical evidence and b.) Alpert expands his definition god so widely—i.e., “god” could be a purely naturalistic universe—that his answer has to be “no”. What he doesn’t mention is that empirical observation, such as the presence of natural evils, and the inefficacy or prayer, have already ruled out certain ideas of God, for example an anthropomorphic God who answers entreaties and is omnibenevolent. Scientific American should be embarrassed at publishing such tripe. Let us hope that in the future they stick to science and refrain from theology.
Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins. Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.
One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.
Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:
Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.
I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.
I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?
Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.
And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”
Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:
Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.
Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.
And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:
The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.
The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”
At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:
Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.
That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .
So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:
DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.
Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.
The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.
What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.
In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:
Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.
Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”
But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.
What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?
So I need this article for my upcoming lectures on Antarctic biology. Sadly, the journal (Current Protein and Peptide Science) isn’t in our university’s e-library, so I have to either buy it (see below) or request it via Interlibrary loan. I will of course do the latter, so readers needn’t send it to me, and I certainly wouldn’t want to encourage bypassing ripoff journal paywalls.
But I was curious about the “Purchase PDF” button. When you click on it, you get this:
FIFTY EIGHT DOLLARS THEY WANT! And the article is only 22 pages long. That’s more than $2 a page for a pdf!
This is highway robbery, I tell you. But these inflated prices are typical if you don’t have a library or private subscription. (The company, by the way, is Bentham Science.)
Now the authors are from Hong Kong, so I doubt that any American taxpayer money was used to fund the research, but that is often the case and that’s DOUBLE highway robbery. If you pay taxes to support research, the results of that research—the publication—should be free to everyone. It’s your money, folks!
Not only that, but this journal may (I’m not sure) charge authors to publish their paper. And where does the publication fee come from? You guessed it: Joe Taxpayer. (There is a place on grant proposals to ask for money to publish papers.)
Scientific publishing is a huge racket, and what ripoff prices like this one do is impede the progress and dissemination of scientific knowledge. Bentham Science can take a number get in line, and kiss my tuchas.
I was so mad that I issued one of my rare tweets:
.@BenthamScienceP Your company wants $58 for a PDF reprint of a 22-page paper on antifreeze proteins. That's >two dollars a page! How can you sleep at night ripping off people this way? I'll get it through interlibrary loan, thanks. You're hurting the dissemination of science.